(The following story first appeared on June 7, 2010. I think readers who did not see it at that time will enjoy looking at it now.)
One of the joys of a working vacation is that it gives travelers time to uncover a region’s hidden gems–those quirky, idiosyncratic places too often overlooked by Frommers or The Lonely Planet but which give you a good feeling for life in the host country. Well, quirky is the very essence of a place called Broken Hill, Australia.
The Australian outback is a starkly beautiful area but, because of temperature extremes (summer temps of 120F are not unusual), poor infrastructure, and immense distances, it can be difficult to visit. Many tourists skip the region entirely, limiting themselves to the urban pleasures of Sydney and Melbourne and the clear blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Adventuresome types who venture into the outback usually do so on a two- or three-day fly in to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the two main tourist centers. However, limiting yourself to these popular destinations is like visiting Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and thinking you have experienced everything the American Southwest has to offer.
My wife and I were on a working vacation to Sydney, Australia where I was teaching at the University of New South Wales. Our three-month posting gave us sufficient time to investigate some of the interesting destinations that lie beyond the skyline of Sydney, including the barren landscapes of the Australian outback only a few hundred miles inland. Based on recommendations from colleagues and neighbors, we set off during school holiday for a part of the outback rarely visited by tourists–the small mining town of Broken Hill, about 630 miles west of Sydney. We boarded the transcontinental Indian-Pacific express for our 12-hour train trip and watched in fascination as the lush greenery of the Pacific coast gave way to an austere, arid land that shimmered orange and ochre-red in the setting sun.
We arrived the next morning in a place that could easily have been the setting for a John Ford western. Broken Hill was settled in the 1870s when a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, followed soon by valuable caches of zinc and lead. Like roughneck mining towns of the American West (think Deadwood or Dodge City) it grew quickly and was a haven for drinking, gambling and prostitution. However, in the 1970s and 80s, as metal prices declined and mining employment dwindled, Broken Hill and the surrounding region had to reinvent itself, and today its major industries include sheep farming, craft shops, movie production (Mad Max 2, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and a nascent tourism industry to which we were happy to contribute.
We toured an underground silver mine, visited the galleries and craft shops lining Main Street, took a walking tour of historic buildings (including the famous Palace Hotel built in the 1880s, see photo), and learned about the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air which meet the medical and educational needs of a region where the nearest public school may be 500 km distant and the closest pharmacy a 10 hour drive! However, the highlight of our stay was the day spent with Mr. David Furnell, the famous “Flying Postman of Broken Hill,” whom we contacted from Sydney to book a most unusual outback tour.
Once a week Mr. Furnell pilots his single engine plane to more than two dozen sheep stations strewn around the outback, carefully avoiding the kangaroos playing tag on the runway. To ward off boredom he invites guests to join him for the day, at absolutely no cost, as he lands, takes off, lands, takes off, … dropping the week’s collection of mail into steel drums, broken refrigerators, old washing machines, and other weird postal receptacles plunked down at the end of the makeshift runways. If the station owners are home they often welcome Dave and his “temporary assistants” in for lunch and conversation, especially as they may be the first visitors at the station in weeks.
I cannot imagine a better way to learn about life in the outback than seeing it from an altitude of a few hundred feet and sharing a sandwich and cold drinks with ranchers striving to eke out a living in this remote landscape. It gave us a good sense for what outback life is really like for those who struggle against this harsh and unforgiving landscape. I doubt if your typical two-week “Highlights of Australia” tour would include sufficient free time to allow you and your family to spend a day with Mr. Furnell and residents of the sheep stations of Western New South Wales. Pity!
So, when enumerating the many reasons for choosing a working vacation in place of your standard family holiday, add to that list a chance to get off the beaten path and see parts of the country casual tourists will never experience.